Public Integrity’s mission statement says we take on “powerful public and private institutions” with our investigative journalism. Few private institutions are more powerful and have a more beloved proprietor than Berkshire Hathaway, led by Warren Buffett.
Mr Buffett chose not to engage directly with us in a joint investigation with The Seattle Times into the mobile home business, Clayton Homes, a Berkshire subsidiary whose founder modeled himself on Mr. Buffett.
“Warren Buffett’s mobile home empire preys on the poor” was our unequivocal headline on Dan Wagner’s piece kicking off the series.
As you will see, it explored the practices of Clayton and quoted from affidavits given by former staff, while detailing cases of mobile home buyers facing both spiraling debt from a depreciating asset and borrowing rates at the higher end of the scale.
Berkshire Hathaway owns the newspaper in its Omaha home and used it to publish an attack on our work by Clayton, accusing us of misleading reporting but not addressing the questions raised in the story. The company continued not to respond to our requests for comment.
The Center and the Seattle Times investigative team stood by our story.
Mr Buffett was questioned about the report at the recent Berkshire Hathaway shareholders’ meeting in Omaha this month. He used that pulpit to criticize the accuracy of reporting by Public Integrity and The Seattle Times, wrongly in our view. Uncharacteristically for someone noted for his personal ethics, he also cast aspersions on the relationship between the two reporters on the story, suggesting they were “roommates” — they’re not — and questioning links between our reporter and a relative who’s a lawyer who has acted in mobile home cases.
Personally, I think that sort of slur is beneath Mr Buffett and he must have been badly advised.
Mr Buffett and his long-term business partner Charlie Munger then used multiple TV appearances to reject the accusations against Clayton, which Mr. Munger described as “balderdash”.
The Center and the The Seattle Times still stand by our story. We’d love to give Mr Buffett the space to respond properly.
Let me also share with you parts of a note sent to Dan by a reader, thanking him for the work on Clayton — which explains why we need to think about the tactics used on some of the most vulnerable Americans. This person wrote:
"My disabled wife and I are looking to purchase a mobile home and read your article with very keen interest…As an extremely low-income household, we've had the utmost respect for Warren Buffett - until your article; it has given us very serious pause... on a number of fronts.
"Thank you for this excellent expose of Warren Buffett, Berkshire/Hathaway, Clayton Homes, etc., it is quite timely for us."